CLEMSON, S.C. -- Everyone knew Deshaun Watson was hurt as Clemson prepared to take on rival South Carolina last year, but outside of the coaches and training staff, no one understood how severe the injury was.
Watson, the star freshman who dealt with injuries all season, had a torn ACL, but he also knew Clemson hadn’t beaten the Gamecocks in six years. He talked with his coaches and doctors and insisted nothing would keep him off the field.
“It was his call to play,” lineman Eric Mac Lain said. “He was hurt, and he was out there giving it his all.”
In other words, no one questions Watson’s toughness. But as a 2015 season filled with promise approaches, the question looming is whether Watson’s body can match his approach.
Watson was brilliant against South Carolina. With a brace holding his knee in place, he completed 14 of 19 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, but he missed the team’s bowl game and sat out spring practice following surgery.
Before that, he had missed the bulk of four games because of a broken finger -- “one of those freak accidents,” Watson said -- suffered while using his hand to brace a fall.
Before that, he sat out the final weeks of 2014 spring practice because of a cracked collarbone suffered in a live scrimmage. The injury held him out of the spring game and, perhaps, kept him from opening the season atop the depth chart.
As Clemson prepares for a 2015 season with College Football Playoff expectations, perhaps the biggest mystery in the sport -- outside of Columbus, Ohio -- is whether Watson can stay healthy for a full season.
“He has a lot to prove with the injury bug,” Mac Lain said. “But he’s been working hard in the training room, getting bigger in the weight room, and I think he’ll take that next step.”
Indeed, Watson has worked tirelessly since the knee surgery. He was in the weight room throughout the offseason to add some bulk to a lanky frame. By mid-spring, he was jogging. By June, he was testing the limits of his surgically repaired knee. When the first practice of fall camp began, Watson was taking snaps with the first-team offense, with a knee brace the only sign anything had been wrong.
“Last year, it was just fluke injuries that held me out,” he said. “I was ready last year, but I’ve put on some muscle, some weight this year. I feel more confident having that chance to get bigger and stronger.”
They were flukes -- an awkward fall, an unlucky step -- but as the old saying goes, once is chance, twice is coincidence, and three times, well, Clemson fans are desperately hoping it’s not a pattern.
Watson isn’t concerned. After his first full practice, a reporter asked if he’d be cautious about hurdling a defender this season.
“If it’s there, I’m going to jump,” Watson said. “I’m just having fun doing something I love.”
In fact, Watson insists he’s not adjusting his style of play at all, and his coaches don’t seem inclined to suggest otherwise.
“I just want him to be Deshaun Watson,” Dabo Swinney said. “That’s all we want from him. He’s a smart player. I don’t think he’s going to try to run over [linebacker] Ben Boulware. But if it’s third-and-1 and he’s got to have it, then that’s probably what he’s going to do.”
Watson will be wearing the knee brace all season, something he insists won’t limit his mobility. He’ll have weapons around him, including perhaps the best receiving duo in the ACC. He’ll also have a work-in-progress offensive line likely to start a true freshman at left tackle. Again, caution blankets the optimism.
“The only times he got hurt was him falling down, so it doesn’t have anything to do with us,” Mac Lain joked before the season started.
But even he understands how much is riding on the health of the star QB.
In his first taste of significant playing time, Watson nearly upended the defending national champs, Florida State, on their home field. In his first start, he threw six touchdown passes. If Watson had extended his stats in limited playing time over the course of a full season, his numbers would’ve rivaled those of Heisman winner Marcus Mariota. The most recent time he was on the field, he did something no Clemson QB had done in six years -- and he did it with a torn ACL.
There’s a belief around Clemson that there is virtually nothing the kid can’t do, but there's always that "if" -- if he can stay healthy, if he's on the field, if the next big injury isn't a play away.
“I know who I am, what kind of injuries I had,” Watson said. “I let them talk, and I do my job.”